WHEN I AM WORKING ON A STORY, I believe in doing in-depth research; so one weekend not long ago I made a tile. I had been conducting interviews on the extraordinary renaissance of fine tile making in Texas and around the country, and I decided I needed hands-on experience. One of the tile studios I had visited allowed me to invade its space, and for several frustrating hours I sculpted, molded, punched, and smacked a hunk of clay into four vaguely tilelike objects. Then I painted them (a bit like decorating cookies, except you can’t eat the dough), fired them, carted them home, and hid them away in the deepest drawer I could find. My appreciation of the skill it takes to conceive and execute a presentable, much less artistic, tile ascended into the stratosphere.
Not since the twenties and thirties has there been such an outpouring of tilemaking creativity in this country. You see it in the form of art in public places, such as the huge nine-story tile mural by artist Jesse Treviño that was unveiled on the exterior of a San Antonio hospital last month. You see it at scores of schools, housing projects, and parks (Corpus Christi’s memorial to tejano-music singer Selena, designed by Cornelia and Ed Gates and actually painted by South Texas children, is one example; the similarly kid-created tile mural at Ingrando Park in Houston is another). But mainly you see evidence of the tile renaissance in people’s homes, where boring, monochromatic kitchen tile has been relegated to the background in favor of gorgeous ceramic murals of ripe apples, figs, and pomegranates and where bathroom countertops and shower stalls are aswim in rainbow-bright parrot fish and angelfish.
The appeal of art tiles, with their luminous glazes and deeply saturated colors, their durability and marvelous originality, is instant and obvious. America’s tile artists have turned traditional tile design upside down with carved “relief” tiles, multilayered colors and glazes that look a mile deep, and images that draw on everything from architecture to textile design. When asked to account for the current resurgence of interest, several artists mentioned the idea of escape. “Cocooning,” said Claudia Reese of Cera-Mix, referring to Americans’ urge to turn their homes into retreats from the scary outside world. Alan Barber of Architerra had a related theory: “The last time tile and other crafts had such a widespread, sustained rebirth was following the Industrial Revolution. I think we’re seeing the same kind of emotional reaction to the digital revolution now.” Tile muralist turned painter Malou Flato of Austin said simply, “Peo-ple want handmade things.”
At this point you may have decided that you want to turn your home into a cocoon. Fine, but prepare for sticker shock: $15 to $35 a square foot for solid-color tile, $50 to $200 and up for decorative tile, compared with $2 to $5 for plain machine-made tile. If you use art tile just as an accent, though, you can dress up a kitchen backsplash for as little as $100. There are any number of ceramic artists in Texas who do individual tile projects, and do them very well. But if you are looking for someone who specializes in tile—who designs and manufactures original lines and markets them through tile showrooms—there are essentially only four names to remember in the state today: Dunis Studios of San Antonio, Cera-Mix and Architerra of Austin, and Saba Studios of Dallas. (Clayworks of Austin does some of the most Texas-oriented tiles in the state, in its appealing Critter line, but it markets them only locally.) None of the four is large (six to ten employees are a lot; sales of $1 million a year would be nice someday), but all are on the cutting edge in their design and the unlimited vision they have for the future of art tile in Texas.
On my way to Dunis Studios in San Antonio I got lost and had to stop for directions. “Oh, yeah, that’s the building that looks like a Chinese restaurant,” said the man I asked. The contemporary, angular structure didn’t look at all like a pagoda, but it did have an exotic twenty-first-century quality. Inside, 50-year-old Susan Dunis, her brother, Gill Aldridge, 55, and eight workers manage and run her manufacturing operation as well as an airy showroom that displays the work of 22 other tile artists from around the country. Even in such company, Dunis’ work—beautifully carved, sensual images of fruits, flowers, and animals—stands out, filling every inch of every tile and spilling exuberantly over the edges. “What you usually see are these timid little artichokes and eggplants centered on a white background, all stiff and cautious,” she says. “I wanted ours to be voluptuous and lush and three-dimensional and wild.” Dunis came to tilemaking from painting and fabric design, a background that has helped rather than hindered her. “I didn’t know enough to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’” she says, so she broke a lot of rules. Obviously, bucking tradition has paid off. Her work is carried by sixty showrooms nationwide, and the business is only four years old. 23645 N. U.S. 281 at Marshall Road, 3.5 miles north of Loop 1604, San Antonio; 210-497-5787; open to the public.
If Susan Dunis’ tiles are quietly luxuriant, Claudia Reese’s are emphatic and bold. They employ an au courant vocabulary including triangles, squares, dots, and dashes—so much so that a curved form like the gracefully swimming koi on her Fish Cameo tiles comes as quite a surprise. For sixteen-odd years Reese’s Cera-Mix studio concentrated on dinnerware, but four or five years ago she and her husband and partner, 46-year-old Phil Martin, began to notice that a lot of their trade- and craft-show customers were fascinated with her then-experimental tiles; at the same time, some galleries and stores that carried Cera-Mix’s dinnerware closed. Reese began to push the tile, and that part of the business doubled for three years running. “My style is about pattern and color, not